Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
By Conor Orr
December 07, 2018

What is a true sign that offenses are getting better? 

Scoring is up, but that could also be part of the runoff inevitably produced by rules changes. Completions and completion percentage are up, but the rise of certain run-pass option concepts has made the short passing game a larger part of every team’s offense.

One analyst I was recently talking to suggested “explosive plays.” Teams almost universally use the term, though the criteria for what amounts to an explosive play aren’t universal. For the sake of this exercise, we used Pro Football Reference’s play finder database and filtered for every play from 2000 to 2018 that was between 20 and 99 yards long, then sorted by year. 

The results? We’re on pace for the most plays of 20 yards or more than ever before. The trajectory hasn’t been a straight incline, but the average per-game was 6.5 in 2000, eclipsed 7.0 for the first time in 2009 (the season the Saints won the Super Bowl) and will be above 8.0 this year, for the first time. 

Here are the raw numbers year-by-year, and the per-game average: 

2000: 1,652 (6.5)
2001: 1,720 (6.7)
2002: 1,719 (6.7)
2003: 1,648 (6.4)
2004: 1,790 (7.0)
2005: 1,620 (6.3)
2006: 1,684 (6.6)
2007: 1,658 (6.5)
2008: 1,728 (6.8)
2009: 1,823 (7.1)
2010: 1,893 (7.4)
2011: 2,032 (7.9)
2012: 1,933 (7.6) 
2013: 1,975 (7.6)
2014: 1,951 (7.6)
2015: 2,027 (7.9)
2016: 1,904 (7.4)
2017: 1,865 (7.3)
2018: 1,589 (8.3)*
* through Week 12

I wasn’t expecting Thursday Night’s Jaguars-Titans tilt to provide much progress toward our projection—but thank you, Derrick Henry! The beauty of this new offensive era is that even the most defensive-focused teams can move the ball at times, given adequate speed on the field and a quarterback who can make a few simple reads. Until defensive coordinators catch up, something coaches at the college level I’ve spoken to estimate could take another year or two in the NFL, teams are going to have more chances to log explosive plays. The question is, will offensive coordinators continue to evolve even with the upper hand? 

This bit of data is part of a larger analysis of the 2018 offensive explosion that I’ve been working on for down the line. There are more reasons we’ll get into, including some you might not have expected. Until then, consider that you’re living through one of the golden ages of play design, both in its simplicity and in its execution.


NOW ON THE MMQB: Is Pittsburgh’s season slip-sliding away?... A delightful read from Andy Benoit on The Brothers Taylor, the NFL’s next Gruden Brothers (though probably not the kind who would trade away their two best players) …  Cam Newton isn’t healthy, so where does that leave the Panthers?

WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: The future of football looks an awful lot like Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes … In search of the defensive counter-revolution, NFL coaches traveled far and wide, from Iowa to West Point …  Should you still start Jared Goff against the Bears? Our fantasy soothsayer says yes


1. Kelvin Benjamin will be signing with the Kansas City Chiefs.

2. Unlike Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman is getting ahead of the move-to-safety questions, and plans to play until he’s 35. 

3. Dak Prescott with the adult comeback of the week when prodded by Eagles linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill.

4. Mike McCarthy has already been back to Lambeau Field twice since his firing to speak with the team and coaching staff

5. Alex Smith is currently battling an infection following surgery for his broken leg.

6. Tom Brady can heal a body with his pajamas, and apparently, a troubled wide receiver with his attention

7. Is the Giants’ late-season surge bad for business when it comes to 2019?


How much do you trust me? Plug this into your car at full volume and glide through the logjammed parkway traffic with never-before-seen panache.

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